“This is fun!” Chan Marshall exclaims between songs on Cat Power Sings Dylan: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (Domino). Dylanites know that the original concert was recorded at Manchester Free Trade Hall (the original bootleg was mislabeled, and the wrong name stuck for all time) and that he never said, “This is fun!” that night. No wonder: he didn’t seem to be having any—unless it was the fun of goading and being goaded by his restive audience, who responded to the thunderous electric portion of the Bob Dylan set, for which he was joined by the Band, with mounting ire until finally a crowd member shouted out: “Judas!” It’s one of the most infamous moments in rock history.
“I don’t believe you,” Dylan shot back. “You’re a liar!” Then he turned to the Band as they vamped on the opening chord of “Like a Rolling Stone” and ordered them to “play fucking loud!” He might better have said, “Play fucking louder.” The audience’s ears weren’t offended only by the simple fact of Dylan’s electric snapping of the folkie bond he’d created with his fans over the first few years of his career: they had been punished with cochlea-crushing decibels for an hour. Dylan and the Band toured England with their own PA system, knowing that the venues there didn’t have amplification power sufficient to their needs, which were so sizable as to be essentially unprecedented. No one had ever turned up the volume this high before; it’s audible even on the CD of the original bootleg, a roar that seems to fill all the space around the notes. As Marlon Brando put it at the time, “The two loudest things I’ve ever heard were a freight train going by and Bob Dylan and the Band.”
Dylan delivered the lyrics of “Like a Rolling Stone”, the last song of the night, as a wailing harangue and putdown, both a denunciation and a renunciation, while the Band rocked ‘n’ rolled unholy behind him. By the time it was over, they had all but killed rock music before it had even gotten started. Plenty of acts would follow, of course, and play even louder over the next half-century, but no amount of wattage could ever deliver that kind of shock again.
Cat Power’s version of the 1966 concert wisely resists trying to repeat that shock. The treatment is reverential but not literal and honors the legend more than the facts. (Tellingly, the Cat Power show took place at Royal Albert Hall, not Manchester.) Cat Power Sings Dylan is nothing like the radical acoustic recastings that have typified Marshall’s covers approach throughout her career. Her band plays the same instruments with a similar style but do not do a note-for-note recreation, giving themselves room to diverge and interpret. The songs get a warmer, more inviting (and much quieter) treatment than Dylan and the Band gave them, carried along on the easy current of Marshall’s smoky, deep alto, which echoes Dylan without imitating him. She’s clearly having every bit of the fun she says she is, proceeding languorously through the 1966 setlist, and she’s cheered on by an adoring audience whose ears are getting anything but assaulted.
Even when a dork in the crowd supplies the obligatory “Judas!”—one song too early, Dylanites will be quick to point out—Marshall responds with a simple, serene “Jesus”. She’s honoring a divinity, not restaging an act of treason. She gently corrects the faux heckler instead of calling him a liar, smoothing out the wrinkle, and puts paid to the whole controversial business with a single word. Then she sidles into “Ballad of a Thin Man”.
The packaging of the double CD contributes to the veneration. The artful photo portrait of Cat Power on the cover has something Dylanesque about it, and nearly the entire 14-page booklet is allocated to a reprint of the songs’ lyrics. The poetry of a Nobelist is always welcome, and it’s certainly understandable that Marshall would want to make room for it—although she does slightly alter a line or two in performance—but Dylan’s lyrics are all over the internet. She could have used the ample space to tell us something about her relationship with them, which runs deep, as her 2008 homage, “Song for Bobby”, proved. Surely, she has more to say about him.
More broadly, it would have been interesting to read her thoughts and feelings about the history that went down that night in 1966. What was her purpose in covering that incendiary show beyond copying a master in warmer colors? She doesn’t do very much to the songs except sing them—quite well, it’s worth appreciating—so what are they doing to her? Which part of the fire was Cat Power burning with?
Questions like those are probably a little too much to ask. Cat Power Sings Dylan does not aim to summon the bristling intensity, boiling antagonism, sonic power, and epochal impact of Dylan and The Band’s original performance. It is simply a very good cover album. Yet perhaps at least a partial answer to the question of what spirit Marshall received from Dylan is audible, especially on the acoustic disc and particularly in her version of “Just Like a Woman”. That song was a highlight of Dylan’s solo opening set that night in 1966—pining, fragile, clear as a psalm—and it’s a highlight of Cat Power’s, too. Marshall doesn’t sing it quite like Dylan did (who can, even if they try?), but she seems to be channeling something of Dylan’s inner energy and giving it her own calming expression.
Perhaps that’s why, at least to me, Cat Power’s rendition of the acoustic set is more successful than the electric one: you feel the intimacy between Marshall and Dylan. More than half a century after he and the Band scorched the earth, it seems less revolutionary to blast people’s eardrums till they call you a traitor than to stand in front of a microphone backed by nothing but an acoustic guitar and harmonica and give new life to oft-covered classics in a voice as elemental as a handful of rain. Cat Power gives you the ghost of electricity, not the electricity itself.
During the pandemic lockdown, the Pretenders‘ Chrissie Hynde and James Walbourne put together an album’s worth of Dylan covers. These were largely acoustic renditions, lightly decorated with quiet electric guitar, keyboard, and woodwinds, but no drums, and mixed to near perfection by the great Tchad Blake. The resulting album was released with little fanfare, befitting the relative obscurity of many selections, like “Standing in the Doorway” and “Blind Willie McTell” from Dylan’s lesser-known 1980s and 1990s catalogue.
Hynde and Walbourne’s Dylan covers album quickly fell into its own obscurity (it doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry). Still, you might seek it out now or cue up the songs on YouTube and listen to its tracks in tandem with Cat Power’s homage. Hynde and Walbourne take a different approach to covering Dylan: less conceptual and devout, more freewheeling and spontaneous. The two albums complement each other and compliment Dylan, our great and limitless musical genius who gives his power and receives ours no end. We cover him, and he covers us.